Hand It To Your Audience

My executive coaching clients often ask what they should do with their hands when presenting. Short answer – use them effectively to add value to their message and audience. Presenters have two wonderful visual aids – and what they do, and don’t do, with them also says a lot about their confidence and credibility as a presenter.

We’ll start this discussion with a brief summary of ‘Gesturing Worst Practices’.  It should be interesting and mildly amusing trip, unless it sounds like I’m talking about you. Next month, we’ll move on to the ‘Gesturing Best Practices’ you can add to your Workplace Presenter Tool Kits. Sound like a plan to you?

A Physiology Primer
1.  That excess nervous energy your level of Presentation Anxiety (PA) produces finds a warm and happy place to hide in your hands. That’s why nervous presenters often get the shakes. Trembling or fidgety hands or fingers are telltale signs of PA and nervousness.

2.  The eyes of the audience are usually drawn to movement. When your hands are moving, the audience is almost compelled to look at them. If your hands are sending out a non-verbal message of ‘I’m nervous’, the audience can’t help but notice.

3.  Gestures can add visual value and punch to your message, or detract from it. Presenters with ineffective or distracting gestures don’t consciously plan them that way. They result from unconscious bad habits combined with that surging PA-generated nervous energy that isn’t channeled more productively.

Worst Practices
That all said, here are the top 10 things you should NOT DO with your hands:
1.  Not gesturing – humans generally gesture when they talk. Just watch a casual stand up conversation from a bit of a distance. Since presenting should be like talking, not gesturing looks odd and unnatural. The longer you go without some kind of gesture, the more conspicuous and distracting it becomes.

2.  Gesturing too much – the opposite extreme can also distract and annoy your audience to the point of making them crazy. Such a distraction gets in the way of your message and quickly erodes your image of credibility.

3.  Overdoing the same gesture – even if the gesture itself is not done too much, using the same one all the time can also negatively impact your audience. That same point, jab or chop can dominate their attention to the point that they begin counting them. Remember that professor in college who used the same gesture over and over again … and the daily lottery some enterprising student ran to see who guessed the correct number of times?

4.  Fidgety movements – an entire family of unproductive hand or finger movements that add nothing to your message or image and only project nervousness.

5.  Putting hands together – they’re like ‘vel’ and ‘cro’. Once you put them together, you can’t get them apart. While this may make you feel more comfortable psychology, it doesn’t project power or confidence. And it may look like you’re praying for help or about to break into ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider …’

6.  Counting with fingers – trite and corny. Your audience doesn’t need you to be that obtuse. They can get it when you use a more subtle transition from point #1 to point #2 than holding up two fingers.

7.  Hands behind your back – this action renders these natural visual aids powerless and looks like you’re hiding something. You are.

8.  Hands together in front in the ‘fig leaf’ position – remember that the eyes of your audience are drawn to your hands and movement. Is that really where you want them to look? I didn’t think so.

9.  Both hands in your pockets – often an unconscious action to remove the fidgety hand movements from sight. Unfortunately, It looks exactly like that. If you continue the fidgets, it makes your pockets look like you brought your pet hamster with you to the presentation.  Or, you start jingling the change in your pocket or your keys, which they can hear.

10.  One hand in pocket – while projecting a more relaxed and casual non-verbal message, you just lost one half of your visual aids. So, a little goes a long way.


If these Gesturing Worst Practices sound too much like you, ask yourself why you do these things. If you’re not real happy with your answer now, your audience won’t be either.

So, what do you do to gesture productively and effectively? Short answer – stop doing any of the above 10 habits. What’s left will probably work well for you. For a more complete answer, check out the February issue. If you can’t wait that long, give me a call.

When you give your audience a hand in the right way, they may respond by giving you a hand. Applause, that is.